Perhaps it’s our Canadian modesty that prevents us from thinking we could have a scandal as big-league and important as Watergate. But that modesty may be misplaced.
When it comes to democracy, nothing is more basic than the citizen’s right to vote. So the deliberate attempt to prevent voters from casting their ballots amounts to a stake through the faintly beating heart of democracy as surely as attempting to wiretap the headquarters of a rival political party.
Of course, Watergate became a world-class scandal because the break-in and coverup were linked to the highest political levels in the U.S.
Is something like that possible here?
The Conservatives, who’ve been fending off charges of trying to deter non-Conservative voters from making it to the correct poll on election day, are presumably hoping that the voter suppression can be blamed on a rogue operating without the approval or awareness of the Conservative party.
Of course, the rogue theory is possible.
But it does run into problems. Given the sheer volume of accusations from across the country, it’s hard to imagine that a rogue (perhaps working with associate rogues) managed to get access to closely guarded internal party voter lists, coordinate and pay for a voter-suppression scheme that involved dealing with a robocall company close to the Conservatives – all without being detected by officials in a notoriously tightly controlled party.
In the riding of Guelph, where everyone acknowledges voter suppression took place, there are apparent expense account irregularities on the part of the local Conservative campaign, which did not report the cost of automated calls that the campaign admits making.
The rogue operator theory runs smack into another problem – the ethos of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Deliberate voter suppression would have seemed inconceivable in a Conservative party headed by Joe Clark or Robert Stanfield. But the gloves-off Harper partisans have shown such a taste for American-style electoral hardball – by, for example, misrepresenting Liberal Irwin Cotler in a phone-call campaign deemed “reprehensible” by the (Conservative) Speaker of the House – that voter suppression perhaps seemed to them like just one tiny step further over the foul line.
Certainly the Harperites have demonstrated what could be charitably described as a casualness about obeying Canada’s election laws, and an antagonism toward Elections Canada for trying to hold them accountable for violations.
In the “in and out” scandal, the Conservatives were found to have violated election laws in 2006 by funneling money through the bank accounts of 67 local candidates to get around spending limits on their national campaign.
It was a complex scheme that was centrally planned, involving top party officials. In a 2008 affidavit, Elections Canada investigator Ronald Lamothe described it as “entirely under the control of and at the direction of officials of the Conservative Fund Canada and/or the Conservative Party of Canada.”
Is it such a stretch to imagine that the top echelons of the party might also have been involved in another complex scheme violating Canadian election laws, this time by directing voters to the wrong polls?
If there was such a voter-suppression scheme, will Elections Canada be able to uncover it, and will the electoral agency have the fortitude to take on the combative Conservatives?
Elections Canada did show some toughness in pursuing the “in and out” scandal for years in the face of Conservative animosity. But last fall, the party was allowed to plead guilty to two reduced offences under the Elections Act. In a deal worked out with Crown prosecutors, charges against four top Conservatives, including senators Irving Gerstein and Doug Finley, were dropped.
The truth about Watergate would likely never have been uncovered without nationally televised public hearings conducted by the U.S. Senate – hearings set up by a 77-0 vote in the Senate.
What’s really hard to imagine is the Harper Conservatives showing the same integrity as the Watergate-era Republicans showed in their willingness set up a public probe into their own party.
Canada certainly needs a public inquiry since, all modesty aside, our democracy is just as important – and perhaps as imperiled – as theirs.
Linda McQuaig’s column appears monthly in the Toronto Star. [email protected]
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